Estonia’s Land of Bogs (Soomaa) and Beachside Pärnu
This article was first published by our friends at WHL Group, who have agreed to its republication here.
>> View original article on whl.travel blog.
By Christopher Lewis
The principal attraction of the small Baltic republic of Estonia is its UNESCO World Heritage Site capital city of Tallinn. Beyond the city limits and off the beaten track, however, lie several less-well-known pleasant surprises, like Estonia’s Summer Capital, better known as Pärnu, and the surrounding Soomaa National Park.
No matter the season – even frozen and blanketed in snow – the bogs of Estonia’s Soomaa National Park are a magical landscape begging for exploration
To Estonian and Finnish tourists, the small town of Pärnu is known primarily for spa resorts and sandy white beaches along the Gulf of Riga, benefits not lost on the many famous people who live there, including Estonians and people from neighbouring countries, like Russian classical violinist David Oistrakh. The town’s appeal is further boosted by its thriving arts and culture scene, just one locus of which is the Pärnu City Gallery, which has organised more than 300 exhibitions since its doors opened in 1995. Further support for the arts comes through Pärnu Artists’ House, the Museum of New Art, Endla Theatre and numerous music and film festivals held throughout the year.
In contrast to Pärnu are the stillness and austerity of Soomaa National Park, a 390-square-kilometre network of rivers, bogs, wetlands, dunes, flooded meadows and swamp forests in western Estonia. The best time of year to visit Soomaa (meaning ‘land of bogs’ in Estonian) is during what locals call the ‘fifth season’, a springtime phenomenon during which water levels can rise up to five meters higher than normal and flood an area of 175 square kilometres. Villagers from nearby Tõramaa and Riisa look forward to this Soomaa signature event with great anticipation, navigating the flooded landscape by modern boat and by haabjas, traditional dugout Estonian canoes.
During Soomaa’s ‘fifth season’, when the area is flooded, waterways are alive with haabjas, traditional Estonian dugout canoes used by locals for everyday navigation
Making a haabja is no simple feat. After harvesting the right tree – typically an aspen free of decay – its centre is hollowed out using a hand-held adze. This is followed by a shaping process that bends the water-soaked sides of the dugout into shape and then holds them in place with support sticks. Lastly, a coat of pine tar is applied. Two or three weeks are required even for the most skilled craftsmen to complete a haabja.
During the fifth season, visitors can engage in a number of unique activities made possible by this fleeting and truly Estonian season, including learning how to build a haabja and paddling one through the swamplands to observe bears, lynx and several varieties of near-extinct migratory birds, as well as unique flora that prefers Soomaa’s boggy and alluvial soil. Anyone who thought wildlife viewing was only possible in Africa can even set out on an Estonian beaver safari for a glimpse of the Sõber Kober, or European beaver, in its native habitat.
To create a haabja’s desired shape, the hewn wood is moistened and manipulated into proper form. Heat from fire, combined with supportive arches and braces, stabilises everything
If haabjas and beavers don’t satisfy, maybe a trek through Soomaa’s bogs will. First everyone straps on special bog shoes, which resemble snowshoes (or a tennis racket). Their special shape keeps hikers from sinking into the soft peat and moss of Soomaa’s swampy fairytale landscape. Normally inaccessible areas, like Kuresoo, a lake filled over centuries by accumulating marsh material, suddenly become prime destination. Real snowshoes are also ideal footwear for winter treks across the frozen wetlands.
For more information on tours, activities, hotels, and friendly local insider tips on Pärnu and Soomaa, contact Aivar Ruukel from Karuskose Ltd., whl.travel’s local connection at www.parnu-soomaa.com.